NEW YORK -- In a series known more for brutality than beauty, it was only fitting that an ex-football player sealed the victory.

Charlie Ward scored a career playoff-high 20 points, including New York's final nine, to lead the Knicks past the Heat 91-83 on Sunday, evening their Eastern Conference semifinal series at two games apiece.The 1993 Heisman Trophy winner was the only Knicks player to score in the final 4 1/2 minutes, converting two layups, a jumper and a 3-pointer.

"I felt like I should have my own team. ... like a go-to guy," Ward said. "I've been in that position before when you are the man and everybody is looking for you to make plays, and you make those plays."

Ward's final shot with 36.1 seconds left clinched the victory, prompting him to pump his fist and spurring the crowd to break into a chant of "Char-lie," "Char-lie." Ward had never heard such a tribute from the Madison Square Garden crowd during his six-year career.

"That was just nice for Charlie to get the accolades he got," Knicks forward Marcus Camby said.

Ward, playing his 53rd career playoff game, surpassed his previous postseason best of 15 points against Indiana in 1998.

He also had seven rebounds, four assists and three steals, and it was just the third time all season he led the team in scoring.

Many of Ward's teammates were thrilled by his breakout game, especially since they know what he is capable of -- even though he doesn't show it every game.

Ward's inconsistency -- he is more likely to score zero points than 20 -- has provided fodder for the kind of endless criticism that has dogged him since he left Florida State and joined the Knicks in 1994.

"The challenge that came forth with football and people saying he's a football player and not a basketball player -- it would drive anybody when someone says you can't do this or you're not that," teammate Chris Childs said.

That label stuck with Ward during his early years in town when he was often called the best quarterback in New York in the years when the NFL Jets and Giants were struggling.

"You never know what energizes a person," Ward said. "The spirit that you have within, you keep moving forward. There have been a lot of times I've been talked about -- can't do this, can't do that -- all those things are coming to rest for one day."